Arriving at the outskirts of the town of Ladbergen in southern Germany after a long day on our bikes, we had an interminable job finding the hotel which we had booked for two nights. We finally found it.
It was at the end of town and in the midst of modern houses and leafy streets. We were surprised to see that our hotel was a renovated medieval era building and that opposite it was a very old church with a single high tower surrounded by tombstones. Amidst the overwhelming sterility of modern suburbia, these relics of history were a welcome sight. The same could not be said however for the Italian ice cream parlour, a short distance from the hotel….then again, it depended on how you saw it.
Ice cream might be a powerful symbol of well being….. even, a nation redeemed …
When we went inside to sign in, we were met by a kind of museum. The ceiling was low and supported by heavy beams. It was dark. There was a woman standing behind a bar, a polished wooden counter with taps and behind it, large ceramic tankards sitting on shelves. It was no longer used. There was an adjoining restaurant also closed. You could hear echoes from the past.
Our room up a narrow flight of wooden stairs; it was small, basic, with a creaking wooden floorboards. The lighting was poor. We unpacked our stuff. Whilst I had a cold shower, Anya went to the office to ask about breakfast, which was included in the price of the room.
She was gone a while.
When she came back, I was lying on the bed, passing in and out of sleep. Every muscle in my body ached.
She appeared before me like an apparition. She was full of enthusiasm.
‘Near the door to the bar and restaurant there’s an alcove. It’s easy to walk passed it without seeing it. In the alcove is a plaque on a wall, made from ceramic tiles. There are a few sentences in German. It says that in 1645, the leaders of the armies fighting the 30 years’ war first met here to discuss peace terms. Just imagine it! This building was here almost 400 years ago! In the old sketches on the tiles, it looks exactly the same!’
This sparked my interest.
In the morning after breakfast I studied the plaque in the alcove and by midday I was immersed in the Thirty Years War. There was a lot involved.
1618: the last great religious war in Europe begins.
The Vatican. A newly installed Pope named Ferdinand. A religious fanatic.
He is determined to impose Catholicism on the Protestants by force of arms: terror and mass murder no problem.
Whatever it takes.
Europe is roughly divided between Catholics in the south and Protestants in the North.
Protestantism had begun with the German priest Luther. His criticism of Catholicism was the start of a revolution within the medieval Christian world. Priests could not determine one’s entry into heaven; that was for the individual to decide. The entire priesthood, along with the monasteries, the clerical lands and over embellished Cathedrals were profane. Latin was no longer the language of God.
Protestantism spread quickly in the north of Europe. It was like the wave of democratisation which swept across Eastern Europe in 1989 and led to the collapse of communism.
After centuries of Catholic domination of Europe it became, thanks to Luther, a patchwork of Catholics and Protestants living in co-existence which was formerly recognised by the Treaty of Augsburg.
Live and let live was the idea.
Until the ascension of Fascist Ferdinand.
He was determined to crush the Protestant states in the north of Europe. In Bohemia, in today’s Czech republic, the German Lutherans rose in rebellion against Ferdinand’s Catholic imperialism and were brutally crushed. The word was out: this was a pope who was prepared to do anything to exterminate the Protestants.
What Ferdinand did was trigger off a long and terrible maelstrom.
A welter of national rivalries – the great problem of Europe – was unleashed.
Spain, aiming to crush the Protestants in The Netherlands, swung behind the Pope’s campaign. It had been waging a campaign there for the last 50 years. Without success. It had a problem: it was trying to wage war in a water land in which its troops were unfamiliar and were being systematically defeated in an ongoing guerrilla style campaign. Now, egged by the Pope, Spain was going to take the gloves off. Austria, a Catholic country, also aligned itself with the Catholic Jihad.
Besides the water, the Dutch protestants had another formidable advantage over the Spanish: business sense. The seeds of a future greatness were in the offing. Amsterdam and its sister cities were already thriving trading cities with deep pockets.
The French – Catholics – alarmed at the policy of the Austrians and the Spanish, supported the Dutch protestants. They were joined by the English and the Danes. Subsidized by the Dutch Protestants and French Catholics, Sweden, a Protestant nation and a formidable military power, entered the conflict. Saxony, the largest province in Germany and Protestant, also joined this alliance.
There it was: an unholy mess!
Both sides employed mercenaries, who would change sides depending on who was paying them the most.
As usual, the civilians got the worst of it.
It’s almost impossible to know how many people died. No one was keeping reliable statistics then. Murder, disease, starvation and rape were widespread. Became normal.
By 1645, the belligerents were exhausted – and on the Catholic side, bankrupted.
They began talking about terms, although military operations continued in hopes of improving their bargaining positions.
And where did they meet?
In a hotel in a small town called Ladbergen.
In 1648, finally, a treaty was concluded.
Thirty years of utter barbarity was unleashed and nothing gained.
The suffering had been immense and most of it endured by the Germans.
In the evening, when the sun had set and it was cooler, we ventured outside. There were strange and conflicting images in my mind. During the Second World War, Ladbergen was bombed flat.
Only two buildings survived: the hotel and the church.
How strange, how perverse it was!
The building where the warring parties in the Thirty Years War had sat down together for the first time and discussed the idea of a truce, had somehow survived the devastation of the Second World War.
Almost as if its role in securing a lasting peace was preserved for posterity.
But after a visit to the other historic survivor, the church, the strange coincidence of the survival of the hotel receded before another, different insight: the peace concluded by those men in 1648 was, in reality, only a truce. In the longer term, there was no lasting peace. The Thirty Years´ war, that dark cataclysmic event, was a forerunner for the horrific wars waged 3 centuries later.
It was a Protestant church. It was older than the hotel.
In the last light of a warm September day, as Anya and I circumnavigated its stone walls, it occurred to me that it must have been humiliating for the Catholics to have had to travel to this small Protestant town and to discuss the terms of a peace treaty. They had failed to eradicate Protestantism from Northern Europe.
Peace however brought no benefits to the Germans. They had borne the brunt of the Thirty Years War, endured the worst excesses of the hate, the violence, the epidemics, the hunger, the mass deaths. And afterwards, there was no recovery; poverty, starvation and disease lingered for decades. Millions of people emigrated. Germans flocked to The Netherlands – including almost half the population of Ladbergen.
The Germans became Europe’s refugees.
Beyond this grim physical reality, was another, deeper, emotional one. The heritage of the Thirty Years War for the German people was an obsession with stability – stability at any price, be it a dictator or a Kaiser, be it a Prussian man of Iron, a pompous Kaiser or a ranting demagogue.
Chaos was to be feared above all else.
But the need for stability – and unity – might prove to be a cure which was at least as bad as the disease.
On two sides of the church were gravestones.
There weren’t many gravestones and few of them had anything interesting to say: just the usual stuff about resting in peace and god and heaven.
Nevertheless, there were a few of the gravestones which literally stopped me in my tracks.
It wasn’t the words in epitaphs that caught my attention, it was the numbers: the dates of birth and death. There were gravestones of people who had been born in the early years of the 20th century and died late in the 1990’s or early 2000’s. I made a quick tally of the events which had occurred during the lives of those people – of the history which had unfolded during their lives:
The First World War and the horrors of trench warfare; mass starvation during the last year of that war, followed by the chaos of defeat, the Great Depression (which hit Germany harder than anywhere else), the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the Second World War, blitz bombing, defeat, the country in ruins and the shocking revelation of the gassing of 6 million Jews; the post war reconstruction and the division of Germany into East and West; the miraculous years of recovery and then, in 1990 the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of new, united Germany – followed by the personal computer, the video and CD player, the age of the internet, the mobile phone and so on.
The simplest thing in the world, the statement of birth and death on a marble slab, was enough to amplify the short but tragic history of the German nation.
Normally Anya and I never ate ice cream.
But this was our last night in Ladbergen. The evening was warm and we knew that on the following day we had a long ride in front of us. Besides, a rare indulgence is often the most enjoyable one.
Outside the Italian ice cream parlour were tables and chairs on a brick work pavement.
They were all occupied. Echoes of people chatting and laughing filled the air.
We bought two small containers of ice cream. The man behind the counter pointed us in the direction of a place over the road where we could sit. We walked over there. it was odd that we hadn’t seen this area before: it was next to the church grounds.
There were three bench seats arranged in a semi-circle around a pond. The perimeter of the pond was a low wall topped by glazed cement tiles. At the end facing the bench seats, water flowed over a low edge of the wall into an iron grid recessed into the ground; the water was then circulated back into the pond. The sound of the water splashing into the grid was welcome on a warm day. There were trees surrounding the area, enough to provide shade yet not block out the light entirely.
On the bench seats were parents and grandparents and children eating Italian ice cream.
After a while, we began watching the kids and their reaction to the water. Some of them were fascinated by it and tried to jump in – whilst being restrained by an adult – or they dabbled their hands in the overflow. But other kids didn’t want to go near the water, just watch it from afar.
People stayed a while and left. Others turned up. Some people appeared on bikes with their children seated behind them and stopped and chatted.
It was a delightful scene.
Sometimes one of the ultimate travel experiences is just sit somewhere and watch people.
Sitting next to the pond that evening, I was a silent witness to a mundane and yet heartening scene: parents and their children sitting around eating Italian ice cream; the air filled with the sounds of water and chatter and laughter.
I had a feeling that this was as far as we could go, never mind all the big ideas about Utopia, a just society, a fair world and so on: a world where parents and grandparents and children could sit around in the evening.
Nothing to worry about.
As the shadows grew longer and the air grew cooler, my thoughts drifted to our hotel and what had taken place there in 1645: a peace treaty which brought no lasting peace.
Like the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War, which laid the foundation for the Second World War.
The air seemed to be filled with metaphors that evening.
It had taken the German people over 3 centuries to travel from that hotel to the Italian ice cream parlour: a a small journey measured in footsteps, an enormous distance measured in years, wars and sufferings.
Finally they had arrived and we were all better off for it.